“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asks in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “Two ways,” Mike responds. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
What’s true of personal finance is true of political power, particularly that of autocrats. Their grip can loosen gradually, then end suddenly. Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu ruled for 24 years, then was captured and killed in late 1989 after two weeks of demonstrations. Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali also ruled for 24 years, then fled in early 2011 after a month of demonstrations that triggered the Arab Spring.
That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades and has increasingly cracked down on political opponents, independent media, civil society, and the internet – leaving average Russians to get their news largely from state-run media that puppets the Kremlin’s message.
At home and abroad, Putin is facing mounting opposition over his invasion of Ukraine, particularly in the face of battlefield losses that have cost Russia 70,000 to 80,000 casualties, 3,500 square miles of territory in Ukraine’s northeast that it previously controlled, and more than 6,200 vehicles and other military equipment.
Now, Ukrainian forces are advancing in the Donbas, the eastern region that is home to Russian-backed separatists and was the main target of Putin’s invasion. The desperate call by pro-Russian officials in the Donbas for Russia to annex their territory reflects fears that Ukraine will recapture it.
In an era of growing “illiberal democracy” – in Russia and Central Europe, in India and the Global South, and elsewhere – populations are trading political liberty for the promise of economic prosperity, social stability, and (in the case of Russia) national glory. For the leaders of those nations, political threats arise when promises aren’t realized.
No one knows when an autocratic leader will fall, or whether the fall will come from a grassroots revolution or a top-level coup. Nor is anyone predicting Putin’s imminent demise, even as global sanctions over the war bite harder on Russia’s economy and more Russians come to learn the reality of military setbacks. But as in Romania and Tunisia, an entrenched leader can soon become an ousted one – and the coming days could determine whether Putin faces such peril.
At home, opposition is coming from a number of directions. Right-wing forces that normally back Putin and view Ukraine as an inherent part of Russia are calling on him to use more military force and impose a national draft, while left-wing opponents are seeking a speedy withdrawal.
In recent days, several local elected officials sent a letter to Russia’s Duma to demand that Putin be removed and tried for treason, while more than 100 other local officials reportedly signed a petition to demand that Putin resign over the war.
Even on state-owned TV, lawmakers and pundits are debating what went wrong and how to address it. On a recent day on NTV, a municipal lawmaker said that Russia can’t win and should seek negotiations, and a university lecturer suggested that Ukraine was more powerful than Russia realized. A Duma member pushed back, saying Russia needed to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure.
This airing of grievances in these different forms is particularly striking in light of a new censorship law, which Putin signed in March, that subjects those who discredit Russia’s armed forces or spread “false information” about it to years in prison; the writer and opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza has been imprisoned for speaking out. Thus, the ongoing public criticism may be a sign that, as often occurs with protests in authoritarian societies, the bravery of one person to speak out inspires that of others.
Abroad, Putin’s most important global partners are criticizing his war efforts, leaving him further isolated around the world and further weakening him at home. China’s Xi Jinping raised “concerns and questions” privately with Putin when they met at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in mid-September, and India’s Narendra Modi criticized him publicly a day later.
To be sure, even the most unpopular autocrats can hang on for long time. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro maintains power at a time of economic collapse and social chaos, while Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to withstand large public protests over economic corruption and political constraint.
Nevertheless, Putin finds himself in a dangerous place. He must decide whether to let the public debate continue and the opposition to mount, or run the risk of cracking down and triggering a reaction that could truly threaten his rule.
“It must be underlined that this criticism should not go overboard,” a senior parliamentarian in Putin’s United Russia party told the New York Times. “Otherwise, it could spark an uncontrollable reaction.”
Indeed, it could.
Lawrence J. Haas, a former senior White House official and award-winning journalist, is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. Haas writes widely on foreign affairs, is quoted often in newspapers and magazines, and appears frequently on TV and radio. At the White House, he was Communications Director for Vice President Al Gore and, before that, for the Office of Management and Budget.
September 22, 2022 at 7:39 pm
Well, vladimir could well be in deep trouble, thanks to machinations by biden-NATO, but this time or period is much preferable than while boris yeltsin was still his boss.
That time, russia was truly in a deep mess, thanks to great gorbachev stupidity.
But now, for vladimir, despite the MASSIVE fascismo threat, he has RS-28 (SS-30) doomsday killer rockets at his disposal.
YOU DON’T WANNA MESS WITH HIM unless ya afflicted with full late stage dementia !!!
September 22, 2022 at 8:50 pm
You’ve probably never heard of the “remora” system.
It was a system designed to intercept these missiles en route, hack the missile and return it to the point of origin.
Initially it was done with a contact device, but now it is done remotely by satellite.
These weapons are destined to return to the point of origin.
September 22, 2022 at 8:57 pm
I find it interesting how the articles on this site and others that markets to US Media only covers one side of the story. I realize Russia took a big hit recently, but things can’t be all rosy for the Ukrainians. They have to be suffering fairly large losses as well both militarily and civilian with the annihilation of a few of their cities.
I have no doubt Putin is in a precarious situation, but he is far from out. Biden upped the tempo a bit with his UN speech so Putin may very well be thinking of using a tactical nuke against one of the areas closer to Poland.
I guess I would just like to see a balanced article.
Tsar has no clothes
September 22, 2022 at 9:56 pm
As always we can count on you to try weenie wagging about nukes. Putin has used that threat so many times that it no longer carries any weight.
The best advice would be to leave Ukraine and Crimea, make war reparations, present those war criminals for prosecution and try treat the humiliation as a learning experience: quit trying to subjugate other countries.
September 22, 2022 at 10:28 pm
there are a few Russian paid trolls active in the comment section of this site,
sometimes they use the same name, sometimes they change it.
Please do your research on what russian “bot farms” and “troll farms” are and don’t be swayed.
September 22, 2022 at 10:37 pm
403forbidden – ‘the great gorbochov stupidity’? Is that you waxing nostalgic for the glory days of the USSR? Like you hero Vlad.
And by ‘MASSIVE fascismo threat’, clearly you mean Putin led Russian fascism that the world is now facing. Oh wait, you live a bizarro backwards Putin boot licker world where up is down and left is right.
Most of The world is no longer afraid of Putin’s insanity, and there is no threat to Russia except for Russian Imperialist forces in Ukraine.
You should fold up your old tired schtick and try something new.
Dr. Scooter Van Neuter
September 23, 2022 at 12:34 am
Yet more feckless propaganda from our own Putin sycophant, ‘403Forbidden’.
Putin has proven to be a stereotypical despot – many of his enemies and challengers end up dead and freedom of speech for his people is crushed in the name of ‘truth’ – his truth.
But as miserable of a man as he is, Vlad is not an idiot – he knows very well that the West and even most of his own countrymen will not tolerate his using nukes in a conventional war as their use would inevitably create a worldwide conflagration.
Despite Russia’s handful of hypersonic missiles, the US wields the overwhelming ability to utterly destroy Russia in a cyber war, nuclear war, or conventional war, and Putin knows it.
Vlad best tread gingerly, comrade.
September 23, 2022 at 6:17 am
Hi, RuSSian spam farm. How it is going? When will you be drafted to the front?
September 23, 2022 at 7:41 am
403Forbidden, well known paid Kremlin troll, has barfed forth another useless post of support for Vlad and Biden.
September 23, 2022 at 9:42 am
Watching Russia’s colossal military meltdown is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It is time to provide Ukraine with the necessary weaponry to put the aggressor out of its misery: ATACMS, A-10 planes… Ruskis would be negotiating their capitulation so fast. Each week we delay brings a horrific cost in human lives.
September 23, 2022 at 2:58 pm
403 It’s so obvious that you’re. Troll. Ukraine, with the backing of NATO and The US will send Russia back to The Stone Age.
If Putin uses Nukes, the Fallout will effect Russia too. He is a Madman!!
September 23, 2022 at 7:45 pm
Geez, Froike and the other Ukrainian bots are busy here today! Ukraine isn’t an ally of us, the United States, Froike. And we have zero interest in a nuclear exchange over it. Longo, your reasoning is infantile here—you’ve learned nothing from 20 years of failed emotional/moral interventions abroad.
Van Neuter—how many hundred million American lives are you willing to wager in something that to us isn’t about our own national interest/existential interests, but which to Russia is? You guys must me kids, because this complete lack of ability to even consider secondary and tertiary effects is utterly juvenile.